Blackbeard's Lost Treasure, cover

Amazon hypeHere are the first three chapters to Caleb Wygal’s new adventure/mystery Blackbeard’s Lost Treasure. After reading, you can order here in paperback for $16.95 and on Kindle for $6.99.


Prologue

Feb. 13, 1717 11:22 a.m. 

 

Captain Ignacio Azarola hoped he had minutes to live. He feared the future that awaited him back in Spain if he somehow survived.

A week earlier, Azarola departed Havana harbor aboard a galleon named the Nuestra Senora de Atocha loaded with one of the last large shipments of silver and gold that would ever be found from the wreckage of the eleven ships of the Spanish Treasure Fleet, which sunk a year and a half earlier. Salvagers planned more dives, although as soaked chests, crates, and boxes of treasure were brought to the surface and tabulated, the accountants discerned there couldn’t be much remaining.

The day was cool and blustery, creating choppy swells in the shallow Atlantic. Thick cloud cover lay overhead, casting a dull pall over the cold late-winter waters.

With plumes of dark gray smoke spilling out of several holes in the hull made from cannon strikes, the Atocha struggled to stay afloat. The lanteen-rigged bonaventure mizzen at the front of the ship disappeared in a well-aimed volley of cannon fire. The decks and remaining mizzenmasts slanted to port.

A terrible storm the previous day caused the Atocha and her protecting ship, the San Jeronimo to separate and lose sight of each other. The onslaught of waves had propelled them apart. Endless torrents of sideways rain limited visibility to a few feet. When the storm subsided, the two ships floated miles away from another. The winds pushed the Atocha towards the Georgia shore and the Jeronimo further out to sea.

This had made Azarola uneasy. Before leaving Cuba, his crew removed most of their cannons because of the enormous weight in the holds. The ship, pregnant with tons of gold, silver, and jewels, had already sat low in the water before the first salvo of cannon fire struck. Then, when the ship stumbled closer to shore, it foundered on a sandbar. They were stuck.

As the Atocha’s crew tried to collect their bearings in the shallow water after the storm subsided, a smaller sloop bearing a British flag had approached. It came from behind a small island. Although tensions between Spain and England were better now with the treaty, Azerola was still wary. He hoped they were just locals coming out to see if the newcomer needed help.

The ship came across their bow and heaved to on their windward side about three hundred yards away, which Azerola thought odd. He thought they would have done the opposite to make it easier to catch the wind and get underway once they were finished helping the Atocha.

Although it may perhaps be the Brits being Brits, he thought. Always making things difficult.

Something tugged at the back of Azerola’s mind, keeping him alert. Many bays, inlets, islands, and shoals lined this length of the Atlantic coast, making it a popular hiding place for bandits. What made him suspicious was that he discerned he was still half a day’s sail away from reaching British controlled waters. They were just north of the Spanish stronghold of Savannah, headed towards the safer waters of Virginia.

He ordered his men to arm themselves and be at the ready. He closed his left eye and brought a spyglass up to his right. He saw three smiling men on the top deck of the approaching ship with more joining them from below decks. They appeared ready to help Azerola.

He took the spyglass down, set it aside, and let out a relieved breath. Help was about to arrive.

Or so he thought.

As the sloop came to a relative halt, a crewman pulled down the British flag and raised the most terrorizing flag he had ever seen in his many years at sea. When a ship raised a pirate flag, it was meant to intimidate other ships. Imagery such as skulls, skeletons, and hourglasses on the flags often told of the death and torture about to come to their prey, although many pirates lacked imagination and used a traditional Skull and Crossbones flag.

What this flag depicted chilled Azerola to the core. On it, a skeleton had a raised goblet in his right hand and a spear piercing a bleeding heart in the other. The goblet was raised in a toast to the Devil. The spear and blood-dripping heart were self-explanatory.

The men alongside Azerola on the top deck gasped in fear. The deck of the other ship was now filled with about seventy or so angry, filthy, shouting, pirates launching fusillades of threats and curses at the Spanish sailors.

The sloop drew closer.

Azerola recognized an attack was imminent. If the pirates came close enough to come aboard, it would be all over.

He commanded his men to prepare for battle. “Arm yourselves! We fight for the crown!”

After another moment of his men staring slack-jawed at the marauding vessel, they jumped into action. He saw several modifications on the sloop across the water. Fourteen cannons lined the starboard side facing them. Azerola knew that was about double the amount a sloop normally carried. He thought the added weight of the cannons might slow the pirates down, although with his ship floundering, the speed of the two vessels mattered little. They were close enough together for the ordinance men who fired the cannons to be able to aim with precision. If the pirates wanted to pierce the foredeck, they would be able to with ease. If they wanted to bring down the Atocha’s masts, it wouldn’t be a problem.

The sloop drew closer.

The muscles in Azerola’s neck and shoulders tensed. He saw his men casting nervous glances at the approaching vessel.

He raised his spyglass to his eye again to get a better view of what he faced. The pirates were filthy and wore ragged clothes. He saw many of them were missing teeth and had visible scars. Some had raised cutlasses in one hand, and—Azerola did a double take—in a few instances, that was their only hand. He counted three who had one arm. Their other arm was no doubt lost in a vile manner. Others wore prerequisite eye patches for a pirate. He saw at least two who had a pointy hook for a hand.

The sloop drew ever closer.

The pirates on the sloop looked like they had seen their share of battles and endured many fights before now as they drew alongside Azerola and his ship. He risked a glance out over the ocean to see if he could spot his protecting ship. Their return would be the only hope he and his men would get through this unscathed. To his disappointment, all he saw besides the swells in the ocean and the dark clouds above were a few seagulls in flight.

There would be no help coming.

The sloop was twenty feet off to starboard. He could almost smell them.

Without warning, five of the sloop’s cannons fired. With pinpoint accuracy, the pirate ship crippled the Atocha. Although no one died in the volley, a few sailors caught some splinters, drawing blood.

He was about to order his men to counterattack when he saw the pirates stop their clamoring and become still. Tendrils of gray fumes wafted from the recently fired cannons. The men on the sloop stepped aside and gave a wide berth for someone to step through.

Azerola’s men had been ready to respond but stopped to watch what was happening on the other ship. Black smoke poured from the hull of the Atocha where three cannonballs had penetrated. Azerola hoped the dark plumes would be a signal to the Jeronimo, although any help at this point might be too late.

All was quiet except the sounds of the waves splashing against the wooden sides of the ships and a squawking seagull who dared to venture close. As it sailed over the sloop, it too became quiet before flying away.

Even the seagull recognized this was not a place for an innocent bystander to be at this moment.

Then Azerola saw why the pirates parted. A frightening man who stood a head taller than the rest of his crew appeared and stepped forward with a confident bearing. Azerola heard his men gasp. One young crewmember to his left began sobbing. A few cowards covered their eyes.

To all outward appearances, the figure on the other ship resembled a demon. A long, black heavy coat hung from his broad shoulders. A cutlass swung from his right hip and a leather holster containing three flintlock pistols hung from his right shoulder and disappeared around his left hip.

What captured everyone’s attention, and put the men at unease, was the figure’s head. A black tricorne hat was perched atop his head. Two lit hemp fuses stuck out from either side of the hat, causing a dark cloud to cover most of his face.

His most notable feature, however, was his long, black beard that spread out over most of his face and fell to below his chest.

He was a giant among the men, and his countenance put everyone—on both ships—at unease.

In all of Azerola’s travels across the oceans and around the world, he had never seen something that frightened him more. He realized his death was close at hand. He was outgunned, his ship was dead in the water, and had no foreseeable help coming.

The demon stepped to the sloop’s edge and stared across the water at the Spanish ship. He viewed every Spanish sailor who dared to look at him right in the eye. Finally, his gaze settled on Azerola who stood in the center of the Spanish sailors across the short distance.

Azerola gulped. When the pirate saw this, he knew he had won.

Azerola spoke little English. While he didn’t understand many of the words and insults hurled at him and his men, he surmised the intent: Give us what you have in your stores or die.

He knew that wasn’t an option. If he relinquished the treasure down below, he faced either being executed or spending the remainder of his life in a Spanish prison . . . if he made it back to Spain alive. Losing such a treasure was an unforgivable offense.

The pirate captain shouted something to Azerola. His lieutenant stepped to his side and translated, “He calls you a bastard with a whore as a mother.”

Azerola winced. The pirate continued his verbal assault.

“He says,” the lieutenant hesitated before continuing with his translation, “he says for us to lay down our weapons and let them come aboard or they will cut off our hands and feet, gouge out our eyes, burn off our testicles and then kill us by chopping off our heads and throwing the bodies overboard for the sharks to feast upon.”

Azerola resisted the urge to release his bladder. He glanced about and saw two of his crew who could speak English was unable to do the same. He felt cold perspiration form on the back of his neck.

He had two choices: to ignore the demand and attack the pirates, dooming himself and all of his crew to a gory death, or give in and let the pirates come aboard and rob them of the treasure below decks. That would spare his crew, although either way, Azerola knew he was a dead man.

 

.   .   .   .   .

 

In the end, Azerola did what he had to do. He acquiesced to the pirate’s demands. He might be a dead man walking, but there was no reason to sacrifice his men to these butchers.

The pirates slung grappling hooks across the narrow gap and pulled the two vessels together. Azerola instructed his crew to step aside and allow the pirates to have complete access to the Atocha. The first wave of pirates crossed with evil grins directed at the Spaniards and disappeared into the holds below.

When pirates captured a ship, they hoped to find goods such as sugar, tobacco, indigo, rum, or spices. To find actual silver and gold was a rarity. Azerola almost wished he could have been below when the pirates saw what lay in the Atocha’s holds.

Standing on the other side of deck wall, the demon captain with the black beard remained in place—as much for intimidation of the Spanish as to direct his own crew. The dark cloud surrounding the man had disappeared. The hemp fuses sticking out of his hat had burned out.

While the dark cloud had scared the Spanish men witless, it was replaced by a set of piercing blue eyes that delved deep into the soul of anyone who made eye contact.

After a few minutes, one of the first pirates to go across to the Atocha reappeared and rushed up to the pirate demon. He spoke quietly to the bearded man. Azerola comprehended what the conversation was about: treasure, real bonafide treasure.

The conversation ceased and the bearded pirate seemed to consider the situation for a few heartbeats before giving instructions to his man. After the man scurried back below the Atocha, the bearded pirate locked eyes with Azerola.

“My second in command, Mr. Hands,” the pirate said in perfect Spanish, “tells me you have great quantities of silver and gold on board.”

Azerola gulped again, and nodded.

The bearded man fixed the Spaniard with a threatening glare, took an aggressive step onto the Atocha, and stood inches from Azarola. He smelled a mixture of sweat, rum, and ganja coming from the pirate.

The man was stoned, Azerola thought, and now he knew about the treasure below.

The stakes just got much higher.

The pirate unsheathed his cutlass and held it to Azerola’s throat. “You must be one of King Phillip’s salvage ships.”

Azerola tried to say something, but the words caught in his throat.

“Speak you filthy swine!” the pirate shouted. The action caused the blade to graze the skin on Azerola’s Adam’s apple. A trickle of blood fell onto the blade, rolled down and off the steel and splashed on the deck.

“Yes, yes,” Azerola stammered. “It was brought up from the wreckage of the treasure fleet. Please, please take all you want.”

To Azerola’s relief, the pirate lowered the sword and stepped back a half a pace. He felt cold sweat ooze down his back and into his breeches. His men stared on at the confrontation in silence. Their fates would be decided in the next few moments.

The pirate pursed his lips and considered, holding eye contact with Azerola. “Where is your protecting vessel? I know Governor Corioles wouldn’t allow a ship carrying so much treasure to sail these waters alone. Where is it?”

“I do not know,” Azerola said quickly. “The storm yesterday separated us. We have not seen them since last afternoon.”

“Yes, a nasty swell that was,” the pirate agreed and contemplated.

Then, a dark-skinned deckhand appeared at the edge of the sloop and gestured out at the ocean. “Captain Teach! Captain Teach! A Spanish galleon! A Spanish galleon!”

The bearded man, who Azerola presumed was Captain Teach, turned and saw where the young pirate pointed. On the horizon, behind the pirate sloop, the Jeronimo appeared.

Azerola heaved a huge sigh of relief. Help had arrived, although he realized he wasn’t safe . . . yet.

Teach made a quick decision. He recognized that with the arrival of the larger Spanish warship he was now the one at a disadvantage as far as position and firepower. He didn’t have enough bodies to man the Atocha’s guns and the ones on his sloop. He did have speed on his side and time. He figured the warship was still a good twenty minutes away from being within firing range.

He shouted to a group of ten pirates waiting to board the galleon. “Quick! Go below and take whatever you can in one trip. Be fast. Tell Mr. Hands and the others already below to get back here!”

“Aye, captain!” the man said, and led his crew across to the galleon and into the storage area below.

Teach turned and gave Azerola a contemptuous glare. “You got lucky,” he said, and then turned and shouted to the rest of the cowering mariners in Spanish, “I am currently taking on recruits. If you wish your lives to be spared, you can join me. I will give ten pieces of eight to any who abandon this garbage,” he said gesturing at Azerola. “Head below, grab the first chest containing treasure you find and hurry back aboard my ship.”

Most of the sailors held firm, loyal to their flag. A handful of men, however, took a step forward.

Azerola thought about his life back in Spain. He had no wife or kids, a small home and little family remaining. If the pirate let him live, he could spare himself a life of the unknown upon return home. He didn’t know what pirate life was like, but it had to be better than death.

“You have five minutes to get aboard my ship,” the fearsome pirate captain shouted, setting the men off in a rush to the doorway leading below.

To Azerola, Teach said, “What about you, captain? You’re a dead man if you stay either way.”

Azerola discerned that to be true. He had seconds to make a life-altering decision.

 

.   .   .   .   .

 

Much later, as Azerola drifted off to sleep in a cramped bunk on the Jeronimo, on their way back to Spain, did he realize that neither Teach nor the pirates had harmed any of his Spanish crew. The only harm caused to his crew after the canon blasts subsided was the red scar on his own throat.

 

7:02 p.m. 

Gentle waves lapped against a seagull’s webbed feet as he stood on the shore. He was hungry, occasionally poking his beak into the sand trying to procure a small morsel.

Small waves came from three rivers coalescing together just a few hundred yards from where freshwater met saltwater and the open Atlantic Ocean, forming a shallow basin. Offshore, pelicans sat on the surf without a care in the world. Dolphins frolicked along the shore.

Across the basin, the glowing orange ball of the sun passed behind a narrow band of clouds on its way to rest for the night, filling the skies with brilliant hues of red, orange, and yellow. The rainbow of colors reflected off the calm, wide swath of water. A sliver of a moon already appeared in sky twenty degrees out over the ocean. The way the land curved here created a perfect vista during the evenings.

Life was easy for this little seagull. Quiet. He spent his days around this small island, soaring through the salty breeze, floating in the surf and hunting for food with his friends.

This day was different. Pirates landed for the first, although not the last time in the area, and were hard at work.

A small tribe of Indians had inhabited the island by themselves for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived in the early 1600’s. The Indians traded land to the white men for cloth and other trinkets.

The first Europeans recently settled on the opposite end of the island along a riverbank after receiving a large land grant from one of the Lord’s Proprietors. He was the first foreigner to call this island home.

The pirates on the opposite shore did not know about the new settler . . . at this time.

The Spanish Navy was searching for this band of pirates. However, the pirates and their cunning new captain were a step ahead of the Spaniards. The pirates recognized they were outmanned and outgunned. The rest of their pirate fleet were busy antagonizing shipping lanes farther to the south.

With their faster sloop, the pirates raced north into a region of the Carolinas they thought was unsettled. As the crewmen buried the treasure on the shore of this island, the captain noted the location on a scrap of fibrous paper.

As a child, Edward Teach attended well-regarded schools in Bristol, England. Not only was he literate—a rarity in those days among pirate crews—he was well read. The pirate wanted to unload the treasure in the event the Spanish army based in Savannah caught and boarded them. If he had no treasure aboard, they would have nothing for which to hold him. Before today, the young captain had yet to assail any Spaniards. What he did to the English or French was of little concern to Spain.

When Teach finished with a hastily scrawled map of the area so he would know where to return, he folded it, and tucked it into his frock coat near his breast.

Back across the sound, the seagull watched as the strange men dug a hole in a sand dune near a large tree. A shadow fell across the bird as it felt a heavy hoof land in the sand near him. Startled, the seagull flew away in search of food in a safer place.

Atop the horse, a man observed the pirates and their activity across the sound. He was alone and knew it would be dangerous to stay on the beach within eyesight of the pirates. Before he trotted away, he spotted a black flag fluttering off the back of the pirate’s ship. The flag depicted a white skeleton spearing a heart with his left hand and holding up a wineglass in the other, as if it were toasting the devil.

The man had not seen this terror-inspiring image before, but it would not be the last time he laid eyes upon it.

The ship had a single word painted near its stern: Revenge.

 

April 17, 1982 

Travis Cole did not believe in God.

The gun pressed to the back of his head caused that belief to waver.

His parents were professors who worked in the geology department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Staunchly atheist, the couple had never seen evidence of a god in their studies and imbued Travis with that belief as a child. It was sometimes tough for Travis as he grew up near Raleigh, North Carolina on the fringes of the Bible Belt. When other classmates celebrated holidays such as Easter and Christmas, he abstained. They thought he was weird and oftentimes shunned their brainy peer. When pressed as to why he did not get presents for Christmas, Travis was often met with glassy-eyed stares when he explained to them he didn’t believe the person described as the son of God in the Bible could make that claim because there was no God.

Now, Cole hoped he was wrong. He was raised to believe that once a person died, that was it. There was no ascension to heaven. No meeting at the pearly gates with an angel who judged if he were good or bad. Cole knew one of two things would happen upon his death: cremation or burial. He was twenty-four years old and the thought of leaving a will with instructions of what to do with his body in the event of his death had never occurred to him.

What started as a side project in his spare time had spiraled out of control and led to this. He’d stood firm and now it was going to cost him his life. He made a promise he couldn’t keep.

Now, he was on his knees. He felt the cold steel of a strange pistol pressed against the back of his head. Sweat poured down his forehead and dripped onto a puddle around his knees. His jeans were soaked with urine and blood.

He couldn’t help it. The fear was overwhelming. He didn’t want to die. He was too young to die.

But it was going to happen.

The man pressing the gun to his head had killed before. Several times, in fact. Although Cole did not know this. Cole had asked for the man’s help in gaining access to the ruins of what was believed to be the last known home of Blackbeard the pirate.

 

One Day Earlier . . . 

As Cole tramped through the underbrush, he looked up to see a snake coiled around a branch in a tree ahead of him. He thought the snake was looking at him, and hesitated for a moment. This was the third snake he had encountered since leaving his car at a guardrail blocking the end of an unnamed road and disappearing into the forest.

His friend warned him of snakes lurking in the marshland. Mosquitoes too. He hoped a liberal spraying of bug repellent would keep that particular pest away. To this point, he didn’t think he’d been bitten. He might not learn that until he went back to his motel room and stripped off his already wet clothes. He imagined this decrepit piece of land must have been much more alluring—and habitable—three hundred years ago when it was last tenanted.

He thought his surroundings resembled more of a jungle than an area near the shoreline of the Pamlico Sound. A thick canopy of longleaf pines and oak trees shrouded the otherwise sunny sky above. When he stepped out of his car and grabbed his gear from the trunk, he figured he couldn’t have asked for more a more pleasant day to go exploring. Once he stepped into the tree line, it felt like the humidity tripled. His long-sleeved cotton shirt clung to his body, soaked in sweat.

Cole followed in his parent’s footsteps and wanted to be a geologist while dabbling in paleontology. After graduating from college, Cole went to work for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh. He was a low-level research assistant working under the Director of Collections for Geology and Paleontology. It was the first step on what Cole hoped would be a long and winding career.

In the year he had worked for the museum, he had been on several historical digs around the state. The subjects ranged from the geology of the Appalachian Mountains on the western side of North Carolina to suspected Native American sites in the central Piedmont region to a dig of a giant sloth from the Ice Age. He hoped to take his experience on a long weekend off and immerse himself in a subject that interested him.

Like many raised near the Outer Banks, Cole grew up with an interest in pirates. Blackbeard in particular. Cole’s parents urged him to read and learn as much about that chapter of history as he could as a child. They took him to Bath and Beaufort when they held pirate festivals as a child.

Many treasure hunters had combed the region over the centuries looking for evidence of Blackbeard’s treasure. Cole had no new information when setting out on this side project.

While the student interns from North Carolina State at the museum were on Spring Break, his bosses gave Cole the week off. He took this time to go to the Outer Banks and see what he could find.

The Plum Point section just outside tiny Bath, North Carolina is the site where the ruins of Blackbeard’s home once rested. This particular slice of land was a snake and mosquito infested marshland. Over the centuries, people came and fought their way through there, although no one had done any serious digging since people from East Carolina University came in the 1970’s.

Cole and the man who granted him access to this zone had shared a history class at North Carolina State University a few years before. The man was interesting in more ways than one. He was the star of many school plays, his father was a famous local entrepreneur, and he had no visible hair—no hair on top of his head, no eyebrows, no facial hair, and no hair on his arms or legs. None. While many of his classmates made fun of him, Cole took the time to get to know him. When Cole asked him why he didn’t have any hair, he said he suffered from a rare case of alopecia but was hopeful that over time and with treatments, he’d regrow his mane.

They shared an interest in pirates, and Cole came to find out the source of the young man’s interest was that his family owned the land the dreaded pirate Blackbeard once inhabited. The man said he hadn’t gone to Plum Point often, and agreed to grant Cole access to the site on one condition: if he found something, the man wanted to see it.

Now Cole understood why the man—or for that matter, hardly anyone—came out this way. The area wasn’t the most hospitable place to trek along the Carolina coast.

He pushed his way between a thick row of bushes and came to the edge of a thick, green stream. He consulted his map, and hoped the murky water before him was the appropriately titled Teaches Gut. He looked along the bank of the stream for a good spot to cross. He was going to have to get wet to cross over. If he didn’t have a twenty-pound backpack strapped to his back, he could have jumped across without any problem. He didn’t want to throw the pack across because there were sensitive and expensive tools in it. That and he didn’t see anywhere to be able to get a couple steps of steam going before leaping.

He shook his head, swatted aside an insect hovering near his right ear, and picked a spot to cross a few steps upstream. He had on a pair of waterproof Merrill hiking shoes and water resistant pants, so he was prepared to get wet. He waded in and sunk into water up to his waist. The stream was deeper than it appeared from the bank. The water was cool, not cold; he felt a soft current against his right side, although it wasn’t going to be enough to stifle his crossing.

After slipping on a rock halfway across—and getting wetter in the process—he climbed up on the bank and took a sip from a water bottle. He gathered his bearings and consulted a map of the area. He just needed to endure about three hundred more yards of dense undergrowth off to his general left to arrive at his destination. He hoped.

The foliage on this side was thinner than what he had pushed through so far. He figured it was because he was nearing the ruins of Blackbeard’s home and three hundred years ago, he had his men clear the land around it.

Cole stopped for a moment when he heard a plane flying by overhead. With the more sparse trees now, he was able to see the blue sky and the white contrails from the plane zoom by. He was getting close. He could feel it.

He crunched over more undergrowth. It became more grassy than brushy the closer he got to his target. A snake slithered across his path, causing Cole to jump back and shout. The long black snake paid him no attention and soon disappeared into the bushes. Cole let out a breath.

I hope that’s the last one, he thought to himself of the snake but figured that it wasn’t likely. He hated snakes—and the umpteenth mosquito he just swatted off the side of his neck. He took a moment to reapply bug spray before continuing.

A few minutes later, he stepped into a clearing overlooking the Pamlico Sound. He soon saw why Blackbeard chose this site to build his home. The section was elevated, offering views of the water all around. You could see every ship—whether enemy or friendly—coming into and leaving Bath from this vantage point. There was no shore. No sandy beach. A rocky wall fortified Plum Point, causing would-be intruders to think twice before trying to invade. Cole imagined a dock protruding from the edge of the land that allowed Blackbeard to come and go as he pleased, conducting any type of business he pleased. Then-governor Charles Eden’s home was also nearby.

It took Cole a good hour to find his way here, amid a thick forest and over two creeks. As isolated as Plum Point was from civilization, he imagined it was even more remote three hundred years ago before the encroachment of homes along the water’s edge on both sides of Plum Point. Perfect for someone who valued privacy above all.

Sea grass covered every part of land here except where a few trees and shrubs dotted the clearing. A space filled with oddly shaped humps of grass and about a hundred feet in diameter was near the back of the clearing, farthest away from the water. Cole trudged off in that direction, hoping these clumps hid the ruins of Blackbeard’s home.

He reached into his backpack and withdrew a compact pickaxe with a telescoping handle. He would use this to clear away any brush and chip at any rocks or wood necessary. If this were a museum-sanctioned project, he would have to mark off the areas he wanted to excavate and take numerous notes, explaining step-by-step every action taken. He came out here of his own volition and had limited time to explore. He would do this his way.

Besides, he thought, he wanted to get away from the mosquitoes and snakes and get back to his air-conditioned, pest-free motel room as soon as possible. He would have to repeat the same daunting trek through the forest to get back to his car.

He made his way to the region where he assumed Blackbeard’s home once stood. He turned and gazed down the bluff at the water and thought the eyewitness accounts of Blackbeard were probably true—that he was an intelligent man. Cole could see across the water for miles around, and spied several ships crossing the choppy waters. The welcoming smell of salt water permeated the air. Coupled with the thick and forbidding forest he had just traversed; this was a place few invaders would attempt to conquer. Not now nor three hundred years ago.

He approached the nearest clump of grass and looked down its length. It was about two feet tall in a few spots and extended about thirty feet from end to end. Cole stood in the middle and prodded at the bulge with the pickaxe. About twelve inches into the thick, dry grass, the metal of the edge of the axe clattered against something hard.

“Hmm,” Cole grunted, and attempted to clear away the grass. While the top layer of grass was faded and dry, the inner couple of inches were wet and brown and in the long process of decomposing. He pulled back what he could, revealing gray, rotted wood.

This must have been a wall to the house, he thought.

He stepped over the wall and into the interior of the lumpy section. Any furniture or additional trappings of life from the early eighteenth century disappeared from this site long before the walls crumbled and rotted away. He did not know what he was hoping to find, he just hoped to find something. The thrill of discovery sent his pulse racing.

He poked, prodded, and kicked at different spots where he figured the perimeter of the house used to be. He located a chipped, clay plate and several rusty, bent metallic eating utensils. Nothing he could say definitively belonged to Blackbeard or to his sixteen-year-old bride. He placed his findings into a large Ziploc freezer bag, and wrote the day’s date and location on it using a black magic marker. He placed the packet in his backpack. The odor from the marker gave him a bit of a buzz.

After an hour of combing through the clumps, he stepped over one of the deteriorated outer walls. He walked around the perimeter of the ruins searching for artifacts. A few billowy trees separated by about ten feet lay between the eastern wall and the edge of the bluff. Cole pictured Blackbeard disembarking from his vessel at the imagined dock and walking in between those trees, returning home to his bride. He had read where the pirate often brought friends with him on those return trips, so they could all have their way with his teenage wife.

Times were different back then, Cole thought, shaking his head. What we consider savage, they oftentimes thought of as commonplace.

Near the rear of the area, at a point farthest away from the water, he saw another clump about twenty feet from the nearest wall. Grass climbed over something in a roughly four-foot-by-four-foot section. It was a few inches high in most spots. The humps around the edge were slightly higher. Cole wondered if this used to be the outhouse or a storage shed. He jabbed the edge with his foot and hit something solid. He took the pickaxe and ripped away a part of the covering grass to reveal the same decayed wood used on the house.

He stuck the head of the pickaxe into the middle of the small space and pushed. He wanted to step into the area, although if this was an outhouse at one time, he didn’t want to fall into the waste pit. He wasn’t afraid of getting trapped, he was afraid of the possible snakes and, well, he didn’t want to get into where Blackbeard may have taken his bowel movements—even if the feces and urine would have been long gone. It just seemed gross to him.

He had nothing to fear. The pickaxe hit a solid bottom two inches below the surface. He bent over and used the pointed end of the pickaxe to scrape away the grass covering the area’s interior. A few black insects scurried away while Cole worked. Thankfully, he saw no snakes. He hadn’t had to swat at any mosquitoes in the past ten minutes either, and he hoped it would stay that way.

After he finished clearing the leaves of grass, he stepped back to see what was now exposed. The wood on one side was higher than the other and he saw an opening towards the center of the elevated area. Not a shed, this was the outhouse, Cole thought. He placed a foot inside the space and tested it before stepping in. The first foot held firm. Satisfied, he stepped into lower section. He bent over to look down the hole. It was dark, so he pulled a heavy-duty metal flashlight from his pack and ignited the beam. He aimed the light down the hole, and sure enough, saw a snake moving around the wet bottom about three feet down.

He didn’t want to find any artifacts down there.

He straightened and let his eyes cast about at the open clearing. He had wanted to do this for a while. Come out to Plum Point and see if he could find anything belonging to Blackbeard. It disappointed him that he had only found kitchenware so far.

At least it’s something, he thought. How many people made it out here over the past three hundred years and missed seeing the eating utensils and single, chipped plate?

He took pride in that, at least. It might earn him respect among his peers back at the museum.

Feeling a little frustrated, Cole slammed the pickaxe against the old floor of the outhouse. What should have been a solid smack was instead a hollow thump. Surprised, Cole repeated the action. Same result.

What was this?

He bent over and rapped against the soft wood with his knuckles. He figured that three hundred years ago when they built the house, they would have leveled off this area before the builders laid wood directly over the dirt. They would have dug a pit on the opposite side for the refuse. This part of the floor should have been solid.

He located a seam in the wooden planks and inserted the edge of the pickaxe in the dark groove. The board gave way with a rusty creak. Cole moved it aside. He flashed the beam of the light into opening.

Thankfully, see didn’t see any snakes. He did see a wooden box. His heart leaped into his chest.

He looked around, almost feeling like a thief pilfering something valuable while watching for the police. He reached in and pulled out the box.

It was wood. Cedar. Remarkably, it was dry. The closely placed planks of wood covered the floor. Cole thought it would have been difficult for moisture to make it through, even over the centuries.

Amazing. Who would think to hide something valuable in the floor of an outhouse?

A smart, cunning pirate named Blackbeard was the answer.

Cole’s chest hurt and he had to force himself to breathe. No matter what was in the box, this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him. He couldn’t imagine finding anything else for the rest of his life that rivaled what was in his hands.

He took a deep breath, and opened the lid of the box.

Jackpot.

.   .   .   .   .

Cole chose not to meet the man’s condition of telling him what he found, although it was after the fact. That was what got him in his current situation.

He could still get out of this and grant the man his wish. However, he wouldn’t do so in the interests of archaeology. He had made a significant, history-changing discovery. The problem was that he had yet to tell anyone at the office about it. He hoped someone would find the box he placed in the archives earlier.

After dealing with this man, Cole saw that he couldn’t let him know what he had discovered. It may never fall into the right hands if he did.

Cole did not know it would come to this, and in the back of his mind, he held out hope that there was more to life than the physical form he was about to leave. His too short life flashed before his eyes.

“Cole,” his friend said softly, “you knew the rules.”

“I’m sorry,” Cole pleaded and squeezed his eyes together, waiting for the man to pull the trigger.

The man did. Travis Cole’s life ended.

Present Day

1

It must have been a mistake, Darwin Trickett thought. How did no one not see this before now?

Trickett was a graduate assistant at North Carolina State University, working in the archives at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. His job was, for the most part, boring, although it would make a good entry on his resume down the line.

He was a massive human. Standing at six feet, eight inches tall and weighing close to three-hundred and fifty pounds, he had to squeeze himself between the already generous amounts of space in between shelving units in this dank, dark, musty storage room underneath the old part of the museum. At twenty-three years of age, he already had a rapidly receding hairline. The rest of his scalp consisted of dense, puffy, black curls. He wore a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses. He was so farsighted that the lenses magnified his eyes.

His appearance often frightened small children.

Those who took the time to get to know Darwin—who were rare—knew him to be a gentle, caring person who would do almost anything for his friends.

The museum opened a new research wing during the late winter of 2012, and now they were looking for low-paid, recent college graduates to sift through the archives in the old wing to clear out space. Boxes and crates filled the numerous storage areas, filled with artifacts and documents from various types of archaeological expeditions. Most of the contents of the storerooms came from projects and digs located in the Carolinas. There was a room for prehistory, ancient history, and recent history. In the grand scope of time, the museum curators defined “Recent History” as any time since Christopher Columbus landed in the New World.

Trickett sat on the floor in one corner of the Recent History section, digging in a cardboard box of unfiled papers and artifacts from what must have been a small project. A strong, musty odor emanated from the box. A common smell to Darwin. Lying atop a wooden plate, a manila envelope and other assorted kitchen tools was a scrawled note in a large Ziploc bag.

It read:

Plum Point Artifacts

Travis Cole

Bath, North Carolina

April 16, 1982

That was it. No notation of who worked on the project besides Cole or any indication of why the box’s contents were important. He had been through dozens of crates and boxes, and all had standard documentation: Name of Project, Project Leader, Place, Date, Findings, and Assistants. Trickett couldn’t place the name Plum Point, although he thought Bath was somewhere near the Outer Banks. It sounded familiar.

With no context to go upon, the various artifacts were meaningless. He pushed the contents around, hoping something would jump out at him. The interior consisted of different artifacts that came from everyday life such as plates, cutlery, a wooden box, and cups. Just like most of the other boxes he had sorted through thus far. He grabbed a manila envelope tucked along the edge of the box in hopes of finding some shred of information that would help him decide if he should keep the box or throw it away.

At the moment, he leaned towards the latter.

The packet was a standard manila envelope. It was thick, but not heavy. He released the metal clasp and lifted the flap. The musty smell returned, however unlike the odor in the rest of the box, it reminded Trickett more of an old library than anything else.

Inside was a leather-bound journal—the source of the smell—and another handwritten note. Again, the note did little to help Trickett. It read:

 

From the Teach ruins.

This is presumed to be the diary of Mary Ormond.

 

Trickett set the note aside. He wasn’t familiar with the names, although he had a sense he’d seen or heard it somewhere before. He’d have to go back and check later and made a note to do so.

There wasn’t an identifying name written inside the first few pages. The cover of the journal was black and unadorned. The pages were yellowed with age and frayed at the edges. Dates preceded many of the entries with the first one beginning in 1717. Whatever this was, it was almost 300 years old. Nowhere near being the oldest of the artifacts in this basement (there was most of an acrocanthosaurus claw in another room that was over 130 million years old); although that didn’t mean he could take this any less seriously. Trickett thought the thin book was in amazing condition, considering its age.

He leafed through a few of the entries near the back of the journal, and was surprised at the intimacy portrayed. The entries depicted a woman much in love with a man and worried about him while he was away. In an entry near the end of the journal, she awoke to a surprise on her pillow: a gold necklace with a large ruby.

Some of the lettering was faded, although Trickett could still make out what was written. Of the few entries he read, this Mary Ormond did not mention the name of her lover. He figured that from the period and the coastal location where Cole came across this journal and from what he had read that the bearded man was the captain of a ship of some sort.

He thought the journal seemed interesting enough, at least, to catalogue. This might be the only thing he’d save from the carton. Trickett was getting ready to close the journal and set it aside when he fumbled it in his hands, causing a folded piece of yellowed parchment to come loose from somewhere in the recesses of the book and flutter to the floor.

He stared at the parchment in surprise. He wondered what was special enough about it that made Ormond tuck it away in her personal diary.

He picked it up between his chubby fingers, and unfolded the frail paper slowly. There was something sacrosanct about it causing Trickett to treat it with even more care than the journal. The parchment had a silken quality. This was expensive paper for the period in which it was made. The left edge of the paper seemed as though it came from a notebook of some sort. Like someone ripped it out in a hurry.

Darwin didn’t know it at the time, but the words and lines on that piece of parchment would change his and other’s lives as well as rewrite the history books.

 

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